Beginning Japanese Research

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Beginning Japanese Family History Research

Although Japanese vital records are not available online or on microfilm, it is still possible to gain access to the records of your ancestors in Japanese records. Searching for your Japanese ancestry can be challenging, but it is possible and worth every effort. The Japanese have a saying:頑張って下さい(ganbatte kudasai) which means: “Please hang in there”, or “Don’t give up.” If you keep at it, you will find your wonderful family heritage in Japan.

The following handout will introduce you to two key record types: Koseki, Kakocho. It will identify where records are kept, explain how to obtain those records and provide additional Japanese research resources.


Koseki

The Koseki is your number one source of vital information and should be your main goal in finding your ancestors in Japan.

What is a Koseki?

Beginning in 1872-1873 a law was instituted requiring all Japanese citizens to register all of their vital information. This information is collected by village and city officials and is called a Koseki. A Koseki is a record with all the registration of all the populations of Japan. It is similar to a census record, but it also contains all the births, deaths, marriage, divorces and adoptions of everyone living in the household. After 1947 the law changed and a household consisted of the husband, wife and children. Prior to 1947 the records were kept in the head-of-household system, so all the extended family members living in a house were included. If the ancestors you are searching for were living after 1872, it is likely they can be found in Koseki records. If your ancestor lived prior to 1872, you will need to search for other records.

The Koseki serves as a certificate of citizenship, so non-Japanese may be noted on a Koseki, e.g. as the spouse or parent of Japanese citizen, but they are not listed in the same way as someone who is Japanese would be listed on the record.

Koseki may differ on the type of paper they are printed on, though they will all be similar in appearance:

  • plain or decorative paper
  • rice paper (like tissue paper)
  • purple mimeograph sheets

Here is an example of a Koseki image:

Koseki.png

A Koseki has a series of columns and boxes, some of which may be crossed out. This happened when someone died or has moved to a different head of household’s Koseki, e.g. in cases of marriage or adoption.

It is important to note that all dates written on Japanese records will be written using the Japanese Imperial Calendar years. You can convert the Imperial year into the western Gregorian calendar year at the following website: Convert Western Years to Japanese Years

Obtaining a Koseki

Koseki records may be in your family possession and you may not even know it! Look for these in your family records. Once you locate one Koseki - you can find others. Some families have had their genealogies written on scrolls, art work or carved onto wood trays. Look for these objects in your homes as they can be another source of information about your family history. It is a good idea to ask your extended family if they have any of these records. If it is not possible to locate a Koseki through family records, records can be obtained through the Japanese City Hall of Records.

Similar to finding records in other countries, Japanese research requires that you first locate the hometown City Hall of Record (honseki chi) for your ancestor. Japanese records have not been centralized, only the City Hall of Record can provide your ancestor’s vital records.

Determining the City Hall of Record

Locating your ancestor’s City Hall of Record can be challenging. You will need more specific information than saying they came from Hiroshima. Not only is there a major city by that name, but it is the name of a prefecture as well as a village and town.

The following are suggested U.S. record sources that may provide the hometown City Hall of Record (honseki chi):

  • WWI Draft Registration Cards, the address of their next of kin in Japan may have been listed
  •  Passports 
  • Old Letters
  • Passenger List databases (try Ancestry.com)
  • FamilySearch is currently indexing immigration records from Japan to America and also Japan to Brazil. Check back often to see when these are available. (http://familysearch.org
  • Naturalization applications records
  • Japanese Internment Records+ 
  • Newspaper archive databases 
  • The Family History Library Microfilm collection*


+ If during WWII your family was placed in one of the internment camps, it would be worthwhile to gain a copy of their interment records. You may be able to discover your ancestor’s hometown City Hall of Record within those records, along with other interesting information regarding your family. The National Archives ARC website is a good place to begin your search.

Requesting a Koseki

Koseki Documentation Packet Checklist

Creating a documentation packet to request your Japanese family’s Koseki is a necessary step to receive the records. Here is a list of what you will need to include in your packet:

  • Photo ID of the person who is a direct line descendant of the ancestor whose record you are requesting. The photo ID can be a driver’s license or passport. Enlarge the copy so it is easily readable - color is preferred. Have the copy notarized. Write in katakana all the English words to speed up the process and to ensure that you get help.
  • Birth certificates of the direct line ancestor, the parent that is also a direct descendant and the direct line grandparents if they were born outside of Japan. Again, write in katakana all the necessary information and have it notarized.
  • Include a self-addressed envelope
  • US Post Office International Money Order for each request. Currently the amount needed is approximately $14.00 per request. This covers copy and postage costs. 
  • Pedigree chart filled out with all the names and information. Complete only the information for the family name you are requesting. Use a highlighter pen to draw a line from you to the line you want information about. Again write names in katakana or use the kanji if you know it. You can download a free blank pedigree chart at FamilySearch.
  • Each city hall has their own special Koseki request form and they require you to use their form. These forms can be usually found on the city hall’s website and is usually a PDF download. Using an online translation site such as Google Chrome Translate and you can translate the page into somewhat understandable English.

Tips and Important Facts when Requesting a Koseki

When requesting your family’s Koseki records it is important to be a precise as you can in be meeting all the government requirements to access these records. You will need to include an US Post Office International Money Order to pay for copies and postage. BE SURE that you only use US Post Office money orders as all others will be returned. Also, you will want to have all photo ID and birth certificates notarized when you put your documentation packet together for your Koseki request.

Be sure to request a Koseki Tohon, because that is a complete copy of the original record. Also, request the old form version, as this has more of the vital records of everyone in the household.

The Japanese people are very privacy conscious and only the direct line descendants can request copies of their ancestor’s Koseki. You will have to put together a documentation packet verifying you are a direct line descendant of the person whose records you are requesting to receive a copy.

Try using Google Translate to write your English names and information into Japanese. Be aware that it very unreliable as a correct translation source, but can help with simple translations. Write the simplest, shortest English a phrase at a time for best results. For best results, hire a translator if you have no family members to assist you.

Responses from Japanese city halls vary; anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months can be expected.

Koseki records are often written in older forms of handwritten kanji and are very difficult to read. Begin looking now for someone who can translate the Koseki records once you receive them. An older, native Japanese relative or friend, or companies who specialize in Koseki translations are the best places to check.

Kakocho

Kakocho means “book of the past.” When a person dies, they are given a new Buddhist name which is recorded on the Kakocho along with their given birth name. These records are kept at the family’s Buddhist temple. Kakocho records can provide information on many generations and include information about immediate family members. Therefore+ Kakocho records are the next best source to search for family history information.

The Family History Library has been able to microfilm a few Kakocho records; it is possible to contact the Buddhist temple directly to receive copies. The Buddhist temple will require that you provide proof of relationship (similar to the Koseki), to the person you are requesting.


Here is an example of a Kakocho.

Kakocho.png



Additional information about the Kakocho is available through the FamilySearch Wiki Japan Buddhist Records

FamilySearch Wiki

The FamilySearch Wiki can be accessed free of charge, anywhere internet service is available. By going to the Japan home page you will locate a multitude of articles, maps, and research guidance.

To understand where to begin, and how to start doing Japanese research, it is suggested that you read about the following topics first:

  • How to Obtain Your Family’s Koseki
  • How to Write City Hall for Your Family’s Koseki
  • Featured Content
  • Japan Census – Household Registration Records (Koseki)

FamilySearch Facebook Page

FamilySearch also hosts a Japanese Genealogy Research page where you are free to ask questions, share experiences, and contact others who share your interest in Japanese Family History. All are welcomed to join.

Additional Research Helps